U.S. warships in the Red Sea have come under increasing fire from the Houthis in Yemen since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war in October. At the same time, the Hezbollah in Lebanon has hinted it could target the U.S. Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Could such Iran-backed armed groups really pose a serious obstacle or threat to U.S. naval power in the region?
The naval destroyer USS Carney shot down three drones during a sustained attack in the Red Sea on Dec. 3. The drones targeted nearby commercial ships as well as the destroyer.
The Carney previously shot down four cruise missiles and 15 drones the Houthis launched toward Israel over the Red Sea on Oct. 19, the first such attack originating from Yemen since the Israel-Hamas War began 12 days earlier.
On Nov. 27, two ballistic missiles fired from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen landed “approximately ten nautical miles” away from the USS Mason after that destroyer had responded to the hijacking of a commercial vessel, according to a U.S. Central Command statement.
Days earlier, on Nov. 23, the USS Thomas Hudner shot down several attack drones targeting it in the Red Sea. The same warship downed a drone headed in its direction on Nov. 15, also over the Red Sea.
The Houthis aren’t the only Iran-backed group capable of menacing U.S. warships. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah indirectly referred to his group’s long-range anti-ship missiles when commenting on the U.S. naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean in early November.
In a likely allusion to the group’s long-range Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship missiles, Nasrallah declared U.S. warships “do not scare us, and will not scare us” and that his group has “prepared for the fleets with which you threaten us.”
During its last war with Israel, in July 2006, Hezbollah surprised Israel when it proved capable of hitting one of its warships — the INS Hanit, a Sa’ar 5-class corvette — with a Chinese-made anti-ship missile, killing four crew and requiring months of repairs before returning to service.
Hezbollah’s anti-ship capabilities are believed to have markedly improved in recent years, with some speculation it could even potentially target the two U.S. carrier strike groups in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and expert on naval operations, noted U.S. naval deployments to the region haven’t stopped Hezbollah and the Houthis from “intensifying actions in the region.”
“Attacks from Hezbollah in Lebanon are rising, and the Houthis have launched missile and drone attacks against U.S. ships and bases in the region,” Clark said.
Nevertheless, the naval deployments have enabled the U.S. to back up Israeli forces “by potentially intercepting threats coming from outside Israel, like Houthi missiles or Iranian attacks.”
“The Carney shooting down Houthi drones may not be that impressive given the poor cost-exchange ratio for the U.S.,” Clark said, referring to the Oct. 19 incident.
The Carney used a number of SM-2 missiles to bring down 19 Houthi projectiles. Each SM-2 costs approximately $300,000, while Houthi missiles and drones are believed to cost around $10,000.
Nicholas Blanford, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the 2011 book Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel, also doesn’t believe the naval deployments have deterred Hezbollah.
Nevertheless, he noted the group is “acutely aware” of the possibility of a direct U.S. role in the ongoing regional hostilities.
“The scale of Hezbollah’s operations along the Blue Line is linked to its interests and those of Iran, not as a reaction to the U.S. naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Blanford said, referring to repeated Hezbollah clashes on the Lebanon-Israel border since the present war began in October.
Blanford noted that Hezbollah is believed to have acquired Russian-built Yakhont anti-ship missiles, which have a range of 186 miles. The group also has several attack drones in its arsenal and possibly an Iranian-built anti-ship missile derived from Tehran’s Fateh-110 family of surface-to-surface missiles.
“I doubt that Hezbollah would unilaterally use any of these systems against the U.S. Navy,” Blanford said. “It might be a possibility if the U.S. was to become actively engaged in a war against Hezbollah.”
Clark is skeptical that any of these Iran-backed groups could seriously endanger U.S. warships, which are on high alert given the tensions throughout the region.
“The militias do not pose a significant threat to prepared U.S. naval forces, mainly because the militias lack sufficient capacity to overwhelm ships defenses, especially at long range,” Clark said. “If U.S. warships get too close to the coast, they can be seen and attacked, but Carney showed that prepared ships can defend themselves.”
While targeting ships at sea at long ranges poses challenges, these groups could also target regional bases and ports frequented by the U.S. Navy.
Clark outlined how over-the-horizon attacks targeting U.S. ships are challenging for these groups, as are any potential attempts to overwhelm the various defenses and countermeasures these ships have.
“U.S. bases, on the other hand, are fixed, and like Saudi oil refineries or bases in Iraq, U.S. bases elsewhere in the Gulf could be attacked effectively by militias,” Clark said.
Blanford noted that while Hezbollah could potentially threaten U.S. warships in the Eastern Mediterranean, the group would likely find itself swiftly outgunned.
“U.S. naval firepower is far more potent than anything Hezbollah has,” Blanford said.
Source » forbes